The robbery should have taken 10 minutes. 4 hours later, the bank was like a circus sideshow. 8 hours later, it was the hottest thing on live T.V. 12 hours later, it was all history. And it’s all true.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975) doesn’t get mentioned much in Al Pacino’s pantheon of great films. (And yes, a 1975 film can be classic!) Perhaps it should be mentioned a bit more often. Directed by the recently passed Sidney Lumet Dog Day Afternoon tells the real story of a bank robbery gone a bit awry.
I always view Dog Day Afternoon as two films, one pure genius and the other merely good. The first half is spectacular and you really don’t know whether to laugh or cry as these three friends go to rob a bank for unknown reasons (they become clear later). Immediately things get out of hand as one of the three can’t go through with it and leaves, being begged “not to take the car,” to which his response is “but how am I going to get home?” Classic. And it goes downhill from there for the two remaining robbers, Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale).
After learning that there is little money in the bank, Sonny and Sal have a dozen or so hostages in the bank and are soon surrounded by NYPD’s finest, led by Detective Moretti, played by Charles Durning, another favorite of mine. You’d think the bank robbery motif had dried up by now but the interplay is so new and refreshing (mostly improvised around the basic script) that it is as if this is the only bank robbery movie ever made. This is the good part – the first half or so of the movie.
The second half drags as we get into the reason for the robbery, which is ultimately so Sonny can pay for a sex change operation for his gay lover Leon. Although the seriousness and open way in which the homosexuality is to be applauded, this part of the movie, though still moving, gets extremely talky and the banter loses its wit. But it does make you think, which is perhaps what it is intended to do.
The finale of the film regains some of its luster with a bang, which I won’t share here in the off chance you don’t know the ending.
What makes Dog Day Afternoon such a good film isn’t the storyline but how it is executed. It is completely real and natural, without all the histrionics or special effects such a film would require today. (Look at Heat, for example. Another wonderful film but in an entirely different way.) And nobody steals the show, even though it is Al Pacino’s movie.
Pacino’s mania is tangibly real as is his care for the hostages themselves. Sal’s worry about being labeled a homosexual, over even escaping the bank, is a hoot. And the dialogue results in some classic lines, my favorite of which is Sal’s response of “Wyoming” to Sonny’s question of “What country do you want to fly to [when we escape on this jet]?” However, most will remember Sonny’s bankfront chant of “Attica” which is great as well, just not the same for me.
Very well done, especially the first half and last few minutes. Even the second half isn’t bad, and even better in terms of social consciousness.
Available everywhere just about.